In 1493, a letter from Christopher Columbus was addressed and presumably sent to Luis de Santangel, in Barcelona, Spain. The surviving document provides a detailed – and frequently glowing – account of the remarkable qualities of the native people and the lands Columbus had set upon. He presents the islands themselves as being the Indies, and he has named them to honor Spain, its rulers, and its Catholic foundation (Columbus). In essence, the letter exists to completely validate the voyages and assure Spain that the newly discovered islands will be of the greatest benefit to the kingdom. As the following then supports, the letter of Columbus to de Santangel is an account clearly intended to promote the esteem of Columbus and the immense advantages to Spain that his courage has made possible. This is then a letter meant to affirm the writer’s integrity and value as bringing to Spain enormous opportunities for increased wealth and power.
In examining the letter in question, it becomes clear that the tone of Columbus exists to reinforce the remarkable qualities of the islands he has found. The tone is completely reverent, which emphasizes the author’s intent to present himself as devoted to promoting Spanish interests. The strong implication is that all of the “wonders” will correctly serve those interests, so the descriptions are uniformly praising to the highest degree. In relating the nature of what he names La Spanola, for example, Columbus describes an island that has great rivers, beautiful mountains, and astounding types of plant and animal life. All of this is clearly intended to emphasize the fertility of the land, and as a rich resource for Spain. This in turn relates to the gold so desired by Spain, as Columbus affirms that: “In the earth there are mines of many metals” (Columbus). In the entire letter, there is no direct statement referring to conquering or literally seizing wealth. Nonetheless, each description of the “wonders” very much appears made to validate the voyages and promise rewards to Spain.
This agenda as the basis for the letter is further reinforced by how Columbus compares qualities of the islands with Spanish possessions and capabilities. One element of the New World Columbus praises as magnificent are the trees he discovers as he moves from island to island. He describes the beauty and richness of the hills and the soil, but emphasizes the remarkable variety of fruit trees. He relates that these trees, from what he has heard, never lose their foliage, and they are: “As green and as beautiful as they are in Spain during May” (Columbus). Columbus also compares the canoes and boats of the islands with the rowing-galleys of Spain. These New World vessels, he notes, while much more narrow than the Spanish ships, move with great speed and no Spanish galley could match them because: “Their motion is a thing beyond belief” (Columbus). Again, the implications are clear; as Spain will own these islands, Spain will be enriched by extremely fertile lands and ship building skills increasing its military power. The emphasis on detail and the relentless praising of everything encountered are, in a sense, a kind of accounting. The actual reason behind the explorer’s vivid and praising descriptions of the New World seems evident when the letter’s recipient is identified. In plain terms, de Santangel was the treasurer of the crown of Aragon, and the man basically responsible for funding the voyages (Fernandez-Armesto, 2010, p. 101). It is not possible to exactly know what plans or ambitions Columbus personally had, but it is logical to assume that he was intent on proving how important to Spain his efforts were. This in turn goes to the likelihood that Columbus, in so addressing de Santangel, was seeking to gain both honor and wealth for himself. Everything in the letter is based on value discovered, and of the greatest importance to Spain.
The same agenda seems evident in how Columbus describes the natives he encounters. He writes of many efforts to find authority or a seat of power, but only comes upon tribes and populations existing in villages. Hr goes on at length, and in a strikingly unembarrassed way, about how these natives assume he and his men are from “heaven.” There are as well comments blatantly indicating that these natives would be useful as possessions of Spain. They are not warlike or aggressive, but they are “well-formed” (Columbus). Moreover, the natives are described as so innocent, it would be no great effort to control them, or at least this is the impression clearly made: “They are artless and generous with what they have” (Columbus). While the tone and the content may be said to only reflect an imperialist ideology common to the era, the reality remains that, in so admiring everything he has encountered, Columbus’s letter exists to literally offer to Spain immensely valuable opportunities for acquiring wealth and power.
Without question, the reputation of Columbus, once generally regarded as a great explorer, has changed over time and it is more ordinary that he is seen as a conqueror. The assessment may be valid, yet it also reflects the values of the era and nations at the time, and this is evident in every line of the discussed letter. When examined, the letter from Columbus to Luis de Santangel was written and sent to support the writer’s integrity and importance in his bringing to Spain enormous opportunities for greater wealth and power.
- Columbus, C. (n/d). “Letter to Luis de Santangel.” Retrieved 29 Jan. 2017 from https://archive.org/details/lettercolumbust00colugoog
- Fernandez-Armesto, F. (2010). Columbus on Himself. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.